King Richard ticks all the inspiration sports story boxes, but transcends the template thanks to the vivid, granular attention paid to its lived-in details and bountiful humanism.
At first glance, it would seem that King Richard — Reinaldo Marcus Green’s origin story of tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams, told largely through the perspective of their father Richard Williams — has quite a lot working against it. First, it’s positioned as absurdly obvious Oscar bait, with Will Smith clearly angling for his third Best Actor nomination as Richard, his grizzled appearance, slumped posture, and exaggerated Southern accent practically screaming SERIOUS ACTING!!! to everyone within ear- and eye-shot. Additionally, we already know how this story ends; at this point, there’s hardly anyone on earth unaware of the record-shattering achievements of the Williams sisters, even those of us who, like this critic, have pretty much zero interest in sports; the Williams family eventually overcoming all obstacles on their way to sports glory is a denouement that practically writes itself. What’s more, Venus and Serena Williams are listed as executive producers, which guarantees that some degree of hagiography will be inextricably baked into this enterprise.
However, in much the same way that the Williams family doggedly conquered every form of resistance to their efforts to better their challenging circumstances, so does this film ultimately triumph over its potential pitfalls to land squarely as an engaging and moving work. Smith, despite the inherent showiness of his performance, does indeed impress. Though you never quite forget that this is Will Smith — whose work contains the palimpsest of all his past roles, as is usually the case for major movie stars — he successfully and necessarily conveys the complicated shadings of his character, making this much more than a simplistic, valedictory portrait. Williams clearly deeply loves his daughters and tirelessly labors toward their success; on the other hand, this is just as much about his own validation, his wish to prove to the cruel world that Richard Williams is a man worthy of praise and respect. He explicitly articulates this motivation, referring to himself in the third person by first and last name. His conflicts with others, particularly his own family, derive from the fact that his ambitions often overwhelm considerations of others’ feelings, opinions, and expertise.
Richard continually butts heads with anyone who has the audacity to suggest that they know better than he does the best way to steer his daughters toward the success that he’s convinced is destined for them. He usually prevails in these battles unscathed, except with his wife Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis, the stealth MVP whose riveting, soulful turn hopefully won’t be overlooked by the awards voters the film is angling at), who sharply reminds him that he’s not the only one with a stake in their daughters’ success. It’s through Brandi’s arguments with Richard that we learn some of the less salutary aspects of his character, such as his infidelity and his unequal concern for his other children not named Venus or Serena. And so, even though King Richard hits all the beats one would expect from this type of inspirational sports story, from the climactic match to the closing credits’ compare/contrast footage featuring the real people portrayed (soundtracked by an appropriately soaring song by Beyoncé), none of this feels like cliché thanks to the vivid, granular attention paid to the specific, lived-in details of the Williams’ story provided by Green’s sensitive direction, Zack Baylin’s deft, witty screenplay, and Robert Elswit’s warm, burnished cinematography. It’s enough to make one fervently hope that the inevitable feature film treatment of the Williams sisters’ own story will be executed with as much skill and care as that of their father.